VoTech Enrollment Booms in Massachusetts as Reputation Grows

Regional vo-tech schools have more applicants than they can handle as the state’s booming manufacturing and information tech sectors continue to expand, drawing more students to what was once a declining field of study.

by Mary Whitfill, The Patriot Ledger / March 15, 2019
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(TNS) — On any given Tuesday, Quincy High School students are using high-tech machines to carve shapes from sheet metal; peeling hundreds of potatoes in the school's state-of-the-art, student-run kitchen; measuring, cutting and sewing personal fashion designs, and rewiring broken light fixtures.

They are a few hundred of the state's 60,000 vocational technical students, and they're on an educational path far different from a few decades ago. Career and vocational technical education programs are at the tail end of a renaissance that has transformed what students learn, how they learn it, whether they go to college, even the reputation of vocational education itself. The area's two regional vo-tech schools, South Shore and Blue Hills, have more applicants than they can accept. In short, this isn't your grandparent's vo-tech.

"Over time, the usefulness of voc has changed as society has changed," James Quaglia, superintendent of Blue Hills Regional Vocational Technical School, said. "Students now perceive us as an opportunity for social advancement. The opportunities are endless here, and students, who are the ones with their ears to the ground, know that."

Blue Hills, with 850 students, and South Shore Regional VoTech, with 645, provide vocational education for the majority of the region's high school students. Quincy and Weymouth run their own programs, but most other towns pay assessments to the regional schools, based on the wealth of the town and number of students it sends to the school.

The schools offer traditional vocational programs in carpentry, automotive repair, electrical technology and culinary arts but modern career opportunities have expanded offerings to include computer-assisted design, criminal justice and horticulture.

"All the trades have just immediately clicked with me," said Quincy High senior Joe Matta, who is in electrical and welding technology programs. "I've heard you can make a decent living with those, there are more than ample opportunities. ... What appealed to me was the use of practical technologies and that we actually used what we were learning everyday."

Sixty years ago, it was common for individual high schools to run their own vocational programs, but regional career training picked up steam in Massachusetts in the early 1960s. But by the 80s and 90s vocational schools had gained the reputation as being schools of low academic expectations for kids who would never go to college, administrators said.

"When I was choosing a school in the 80s I wasn't even allowed to look at a vo-tech school because my dad said that's where 'those kids' go, and that I wouldn't go to college if I went there," Blue Hills Principal Jill Rossetti said. "There are so many myths that started going around and we're working hard to get around those."

Administrators agree that vocational education in the 1960s was primarily for students on a non-college track. Now, however, 70 percent of Blue Hills graduates go on to get a two- or four-year degree, and 40 percent of South Shore Tech students do the same. And the ones who don't are almost guaranteed a job right out of high school, students say.

"I'm more of a hands-on learner and I didn't really think I would fit in at Whitman-Hanson," South Shore Tech senior Jill Leafer, a 17-year-old licensed cosmetologist from Whitman, said. "So I came here. Vo-tech is changing. Going to a trade school is looked at as a good thing instead of a bad thing. A lot of us already have jobs in salons. I do, and I know I'll have a place to go when I graduate."

Keith Segalla, Quincy's vo-tech director, says enrollment into Quincy's career programs have been climbing for years, and Quincy High Principal Lawrence Taglieri says it in no way hinders a student's ability to pursue higher education after graduation. Segalla says the district works to pair students who can't afford traditional college with post-grad programs that will help them get there if that's what they want.

"We try to identify students who can't go to college for financial reasons and work with companies that will help them get a job right out of high school, pay them for their work, and maybe even help them pay for tuition or individual classes," Segalla said. "We have terrific partnerships with businesses like South Shore Health System. The electricians union gives our students scholarships. We can help anyone get somewhere."

While Quaglia, the Blue Hills superintendent, says college is great, he thinks looking at it as the only successful post-grad path is a dangerous assumption. Quaglia says the idea of college as the be-all and end-all of education has grown over the last 30 years, and the National Center for Education Statistics says college enrollment rates have increased 28 percent since 2000.

"Who was it that decided people who keep up our infrastructure are less intelligent, or less skilled? Who decided that?" he said. "It's the transferability of skills, of logic, of problem solving that's what we teach here. That's what makes people more successful, the ability to think creatively and solve problems."

Today, however, students and families are coming back around to the idea of high school vocational training, South Shore Tech Principal Mark Aubrey says, and some of that is a direct result of the negative myths that once plagued vo-tech programs. The rise of students going straight to college resulted in a decline in vocational education in the 80s and 90s, which created a major shortage of skilled workers in industries like mechanics and welding, the Massachusetts Office of Labor and Workforce Development reports. And students are catching on.

At Blue Hills, 500 to 600 students apply annually for classes of about 240 students. South Shore VoTech accepts 170 incoming freshmen per year, but turns away as many applicants. Aubrey said his school is at its physical capacity, and that he's eager to expand, but the state School Building Authority has denied the school's last four applications for help renovating or rebuilding.

"There are people who want to be here and we can't service them," he said. "Doesn't that seem wrong? Isn't that what education is all about?"

The state expects the number of jobs in three key sectors — manufacturing, information technology and health care – that will go unfilled in Massachusetts to reach 25,000 by 2024. Those job opportunities, plus the rising cost of a four-year college education, has career training looking better than ever, Aubrey said.

"We've been touting ourselves for years as a great option but now, with the retiring generation (of workers), there are so many positions open in the trades," he said. "This is the time, really. This is where students should be,"

©2019 The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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